The story of Abram (before he becomes Abraham) is one of the inflection points in the Torah. After Abram, everything begins happening for the Jewish people. But let’s take a look at where this story is located and what it is trying to teach us.
Here is the text:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
2 וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
This looks like a simple command to move away from a birthplace and a family. But it is much more than that. You see, this story comes right after the story of the Tower of Babel where the people of the Earth sought to build a tower to reach to God. And why did they do this? There were two reasons: In the language of the philosophers, they wanted to be ‘co-equal’ with God. They figured, if we can reach heaven then, in at least one respect, we will be equal to God. Their second reason is explained in the text:
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4 NIV)
By becoming co-equal with God, they would make a name for themselves. They wanted their names to live eternally. Today, no one remembers even one of their names. Their names are lost to history forever. The only thing that remains is their arrogance.
Abram, on the other hand, hears the call from God who will ‘make your name great.’ The difference between Genesis 11 and Genesis 12 is stark. In one, the people want to make their name great. In the other, it is the response to God that will make a name great.
Making a great name for oneself is a second-by-second process and continues every moment we are alive. Each moment is our response to God for being alive. How we stand in the presence of God is our response to that promise God made to Abram to ‘make your name great.’
Rashi, the great commentator makes a comment on the verse where God says to Abram, ‘”5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars– if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Gen. 15:5 NIV). Rashi asks, why did God take him outside of his tent? He writes: “…according to its Midrashic interpretation, He said to him, “Go out of your astrology,” for you have seen in the signs of the Zodiac that you are not destined to have a son. Indeed, Abram will have no son, but Abraham will have a son. Similarly, Sarai will not give birth, but Sarah will give birth. I will give you another name, and your destiny
Rashi wants to know why God took him outside the tent and answers that, if he looked up to his ‘astrology in the stars’ – i.e., his destiny, he would have no son and Sarai would have no son. God is telling him, forget the astronomy, forget what is ‘written in the stars,’ give heed to what you left behind only insofar that it can guide you on your new journey. It is then that, by being in covenant with Me, God says, that your name will be great, that it will last, and that your journey will bear fruit.
Each of us seeks to make a great name for ourselves. Some build towers and expect the towers to last forever. They never do. Others seeks a different path. They depart on a journey of covenant and relationship with God, with all humanity and, indeed with the universe itself. They know it is a journey that never ends and that, like Abram knew, it is a journey filled with challenge and sorrow and joy. That journey is called ‘Our Name’ and how we embark on that journey is the Tower we build. It is not a tower made of bricks and mortar but of mitzvot and righteousness and holy relationship. Each of us will embark on that journey differently. but only if, like Abram, we answer the still small voice inside each of us that implores us to ‘go forth.’